Friday, March 29, 2019

A visit to Lui’s Thai Food on 4th Street

Photos and interview by Stacie Joy

Getting Pimnapa “Lek” Sunthatkolkarn, chef/owner of Lui’s Thai Food, 128 E. Fourth St. between First Avenue and Second Avenue, to sit still for a minute for our interview is no easy task.

I stopped by the small restaurant during a break in service, which happens every day from 4 to 5 p.m. Although she confesses to being tired, she’s in almost constant motion, a 62-year-old one-woman powerhouse.

She first addresses a common misconception with me — that she must be the eponymous Lui.

But no, lui in Thailand means, roughly, “go for it!” Still, enough people call her Lui that she good-naturedly answers to it along with Lek, her actual nickname.

Lek used to own Holy Basil, a much-loved, now-shuttered Thai spot on Second Avenue near Ninth Street. She opened Lui's in late 2013.

An East Village resident (she’s lived on 11th Street for more than 30 years), Lek says having a restaurant here is hard work and wonders aloud if the East Village has changed, speculates how it might have changed, and worries about keeping the restaurant busy enough going forward.

She mentions how many people, her long-term customers, are leaving NYC now. When I ask her if she’ll be staying, she tells me she has five years left on her 10-year lease.

[Kris the waiter]

When she first opened Lui’s Thai, she had only nine items on the menu. And she didn't offer pad thai.

She laughs and tells me that “you must have pad thai or you die.”

She’s changed the menu since opening day. Today, she not only has the mandatory noodle dish but also traditional curries and some locally sourced small-batch specials. Some of those plates get playful names like Ooh la la Salmon Belly or Grilled Squid with Spicy Sexy Sauce.

If something doesn't sell, then she takes it off the menu. Current best-selling dishes are the crispy duck and the garlic chicken.

Lek would like customers to try new things and expand their palate but doesn’t want to tell them what (or what not) to eat. She wishes she could instruct them “don’t eat only pad thai, try the drunken salmon noodles.” Her favorite item on the menu is the Thai eggplant with soft tofu, a recipe from her grandmother.

[Crispy duck with garlic chives and basil]

[Tofu and vegetables soup with ho choy, watercress, tomatoes and spicy broth]

[Crispy calamari and shrimp w/garlic chives and green beans in spicy sauce]

[Beef drunken noodles with chilis, Chinese broccoli and basil]

There’s no alcohol at Lui's, though you can bring in your own bottle of wine (without a corkage fee). When I ask her why she doesn’t want a beer/wine license, she laughs again and tells me that people linger too long at a place serving alcohol. You need high turnover in a space this small or a business can’t survive.

Despite her worries about the business, Lek has a cheerful disposition and laughs a lot. As I am leaving she tells me, “Eat, then dance. Have fun!”


Lek is old-fashioned and doesn’t do social media. Restaurant hours include a lunch service from noon until 4 p.m., then dinner from 5 to 10:30 p.m. No reservations.

H/T to Kathleen McMillan for helping facilitate this interview.


afbp said...

i've said this to EVERYONE i meet---when/if the conversation shifts to food---the BEST thai food in NYC :)

Anonymous said...

I remember the good food at Holy Basil. I'll be going to this restaurant soon.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE this place. She seems like a sweet woman. I have not visited for quite some time. I need a fix soon. They have such delicious food here. And the simple ambience is charming too. Places such as this are what make the EV great. :)

cjn said...

I only order from Lui's. Always is delivered quickly and still hot. Food is amazing.

Glenn said...

The food looks amazing!

PZ said...

This place is excellent and I hope it - and places like it - continue to succeed. I noticed a few poor Yelp ratings regarding service. I have not experienced that.

Daniel said...

I absolutely LOVE Lui's! Amazing food and it's BYOB, too.

Gojira said...

Amazingly, I was just talking about Holy Basil last week and wondering where Lek had gone, and here she is! In the 80s she was cooking at Montien Thai, a tiny restaurant on 14th Street near Avenue B, and the food was amazing; my late husband and I would eat there on an almost weekly basis, and she would often come out of the kitchen and sit and talk to us. At one point she mentioned she had learned to cook in the kitchens of the king of Thailand, and her food is always so inventive and delicious, I can believe it. I know where I'll be going for dinner tonight - I've got an old friend to say hello to, and some amazing food to eat!

Anonymous said...

I’ve gotten takeout from here a ton (usually curries, haven’t explored the menu as much as I apparently should) and it’s always ready fast and delicious. Unfortunately haven’t dined in yet but it’s on the list. Sweet story. 4th Street is such a powerhouse of food, glad to be close to there. I eat at Bali Kitchen and Mono Mono all the time too.

Gojira— just beware that they often get quite busy on Fridays!

Anonymous said...

Thai food is my favorite. I like this restaurant a lot because it has character and the food is delicious.

Anonymous said...

I will try it! Been hurting ever since EVThai left us.

Anonymous said...

They have the best crispy duck.

Anonymous said...

Been looking for a good Thai restaurant, haven't found one since Siam Square closed on Second Avenue 20 years ago. Will check this one real soon. Thanks.

sophocles said...

We tried it the other night after reading this post. The two sauces we tried, spice ginger and red curry pineapple, were quite tasty. We probably should have had the duck w/red curry instead of the shrimp & mussels. Shrimp were flaccid and mussels were boring. Portions were on the small side. B/B+.

TG said...

we go there all the time, though it's been a while - this is a great reminder to go back. we love the salmon drunken noodles and the extraordinary rich brothy soup that comes with it. and a special note: her coconut flan is one of the greatest desserts in nyc! we missed it for a while because her oven was broken, hopefully it is back on the menu again...

Daniel said...

This is my favorite Thai restaurant in NYC. Menu is great, with many dishes you don't find at other places. And the food itself it absolutely delicious - we've never had anything that wasn't super flavorful and satisfying. Portion size is perfect (unless you're a super-size-me kind of person). The fact that it's BYOB makes it all that much better. A+